Here’s a study in bad decision-making: James Burke, a 27-year-old Staten Island teacher who was found to have inappropriately touched an eight-year-old autistic student retaliated against everyone who blew the whistle on him, as well as their family members, by accusing them of molestation. That’s according to a new report from the Special Commissioner of Investigation for the New York City School District (SCI), who have also referred Burke’s case to the Staten Island District Attorney for possible criminal charges.
Burke worked at P.S. 69 in Staten Island’s New Springville neighborhood (their website still lists him as a third-grade teacher there.) In May of 2013, a dean at the school filed a complaint against him, saying that he’d inappropriately touched and tickled the eight-year-old autistic boy, as well as other students. Burke declined to be interviewed by the SCI investigators, who nonetheless say they found the allegations to be true and reassigned him.
At that point, Burke apparently decided it was time for payback.
On July 26, SCI investigators received an anonymous phone call from a man who said he was the father of a second-grader at P.S. 69, and that the boy had reported a female teacher had touched the student “on his private parts multiple times in the classroom and when they were alone together.” The “father” also reported that his son was now having nightmares.
The accusation was so serious that the SCI immediately referred it to police. But the NYPD’s Staten Island Special Victim’s Squad quickly learned that the student didn’t live with his father and didn’t know him, making the accusation bogus.
The next call came in August, when another anonymous male caller said a female teaching assistant at P.S. 58, the other elementary school in the area, had touched an eight-year-old boy’s genital area over his clothes. It also said that when he didn’t follow the woman’s orders, she “hit him with his own hand and claimed the boy was hitting himself.” That complaint, too, was referred to the NYPD, who interviewed the boy. He didn’t report any abuse. The assistant also strongly denied the allegations. A second phone call in August reported abuse against another seven-year-old boy at P.S. 58, saying that a female aide had groped and tickled him.
The NYPD found those complaints were also baseless, and the SCI began investigating. They talked with the teaching assistant at P.S. 58 who, as it turned out, was a teacher at P.S. 69 who was teaching summer school at 58. She told investigators that she’d been on a flight to another state when the second allegation was made. She added that she thought the caller was probably Burke, who she said didn’t like her, and who she tried to keep her distance from.
But the calls continued: a fourth August phone call from yet another anonymous male charged that a dean at P.S. 69 was inappropriately touching and tickling female students. An anonymous caller in September said the same about a female 4th grade teacher. It went on and on, totaling thirteen calls between August and October. Some of them were stranger than others: on October 3, the caller said that a female teacher at Tottenville High School had discussed HPV, a sexually transmitted infection, with her son, told him she had it, and showed him a picture of her vagina on her cellphone. The caller added that when he tried to complain to the assistant principal of the school, he refused to take the complaint.
As it turned out, the Tottenville teacher being accused in the HPV story was also the daughter of a teaching assistant at P.S. 69. Her mother had been a witness against Burke in the original case. After the assistant principal received several phone calls from the same anonymous person, wanting to talk about HPV and vaginas, the assistant principal wrote down the phone number where the calls were coming from. He showed it to the teaching assistant, who recognized the number as Burke’s.
By the time an anonymous male caller said that students at Staten Island Technical High School were shown masturbation videos by a male teaching assistant, the SCI realized that all these calls were likely coming from Burke. Turns out the male teaching assistant was the brother of a female teaching assistant who was a witness against Burke in his original case.
Phone records obtained by the SCI from Burke’s cellphone carrier confirmed that every anonymous call was made from his phone number. Burke declined to talk to investigators either alone or with his attorney, although he did agree to resign, effective March 31, 2014. (It’s likely that he’s whiling away his remaining time in one of the city’s “rubber rooms,” not teaching students.)
Nonetheless, the SCI has a few ideas about what to do next. Namely, they recommend that when Burke’s “irrevocable resignation” takes effect, he be made ineligible to work for the Department of Education in any capacity. Besides referring the case to Staten Island District Attorney Daniel M. Donovan Jr., they’ve also notified the state Education Department and the city’s office of legal services.
The full report from the SCI is on the following page.
Send your story tips to the author, Anna Merlan.